We told you so - California's ocean waters and coast still aren't protected from big oil spills!

Orange County Oil Spill 2021. Photo courtesy of Food & Water Watch. | 

I wrote the below article in 2010 warning of the consequences of not protecting the ocean from oil spills, oil drilling, pollution and all human impacts other than fishing and gathering in the "marine protected areas" created under the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative. This article warned of the consequences of allowing a Big Oil lobbyist and other corporate operatives to oversee "marine protection" in California in a classic example of Deep Regulatory Capture.

As Sara Randall, then the program director of the Institute for Fishery Resources and Commercial Fishermen of America, said so eloquently at the time, "These marine protected areas, as currently designed, don't protect against oil spills. What's the point of developing marine protected areas if they don't protect the resources?"

There have been two major oil spills off the Southern California Coast since this was written. And none of the reporters covering the current Orange County Oil Spill will discuss how the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) in Southern California, under the leadership of a Big Oil lobbyist, still is not enforced as written when it was signed into law by Governor Gray Davis in 1999.

After a major oil spill from a ruptured pipeline devastated 9 miles of the Santa Barbara County coast on May 19, 2015 and as yet another spill from another ruptured pipeline is currently killing fish, birds and other marine life on the Orange County Coast, we can see now that the very thing that grassroots environmentalists, Tribal leaders and fishermen warned about has come to pass. Ironically, four "marine protected areas" created under the helm of Catherine Reheis-Boyd, President of the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) were fouled by the Refugio Beach Oil Spill of 2015.

Also as forecasted in the article, California regulators have expanded oil drilling in recent years. California oil and gas regulators have continued to approve new and reworked offshore oil well permits under existing leases off the Southern California Coast.

Governor Jerry Brown approved over 200 offshore oil well permits in state waters from 2011 to 2017, according to data analyzed by Food and Water Watch and Fractracker Alliance.

Governor Newsom’s oil and gas regulators have continued granting offshore oil well permits also. As of October 1, 2021, there have been a total of 150 reported permits issued for offshore wells since January 1, 2019, according to a new analysis of permits approved through October 1, 2021 and posted at www.NewsomWellWatch.org by Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance.   

“Five of these permits were for new drilling and the remaining 145 for reworks (including sidetracks and deepening operations). Half of the total were issued for idle wells that should be plugged and properly abandoned to reduce the risk of blowouts, leaks, and other accidents. Over the first three quarters of 2021 there have been 17 offshore permits issued,” according to the groups.

The bottom line is that California’s federal and state waters are NOT PROTECTED from oil spills as offshore oil drilling continues unabated in federal and state waters.

In addition, Governor Newsom’s oil regulators have approved 9,728 onshore oil drilling permits since he assumed office in 2019. The groups said Newsom should immediately cease approval of more oil permits to avoid hitting the 10,000 mark.

MLPA Initiative will do nothing to stop a big oil spill off California 

By Dan Bacher

June 12, 2010 - The BP Oil Spill, the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history, continues to devastate the fish and wildlife populations and coastal fishing communities of the Gulf of Mexico.

A federal government panel on Thursday doubled its estimate of how much oil has been flowing into the Gulf from the Horizon Deepwater spill, according to the New York Times on June 10.

"The new estimate is 25,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil a day," said reporters Justin Gillis and Henry Fountain. "That range, still preliminary, is far above the previous estimate of 12,000 to 19,000 barrels a day."

The panel suggests that the same amount of oil that was spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster could have been spewing into the Gulf every 8-10 days during the unprecedented catastrophe.

The spill occurs at a time when Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of the worst Governors for fish and the environment in California history, and his collaborators continue to tout his fast-track Marine Life ‘"Protection" Act (MLPA) Initiative as a "model" of marine "protection."

The Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA), a landmark law passed by the California Legislature and signed by Governor Davis in 1999, was supported by both Democrats and Republicans and a coalition of environmental and fishing groups.

However, oil industry, marina development and other corporate interests, in a bizarre parody of marine "protection," have hijacked the implementation of the MLPA under the Schwarzenegger administration. There is no doubt that Schwarzenegger's MLPA Initiative will do little or nothing to stop a disaster like that of the BP or the Exxon Valdez oil spills from taking place in California waters.

"These marine protected areas, as currently designed, don't protect against oil spills," said Sara Randall, program director of the Institute for Fishery Resources and Commercial Fishermen of America. "What's the point of developing marine protected areas if they don't protect the resources?" 

The MLPA, as amended in 2004, is very broad in its scope. The law was intended to not only restrict or prohibit fishing in a network of "marine protected areas," but to restrict or prohibit other human activities including coastal development and water pollution.

"Coastal development, water pollution, and other human activities threaten the health of marine habitat and the biological diversity found in California's ocean waters," the law states in Fish and Game Code Section 2851, section c.

The law also broadly defines a "marine protected area" (MPA) as "a named, discrete geographic marine or estuarine area seaward of the mean high tide line or the mouth of a coastal river, including any area of inertial or sub tidal terrain, together with its overlying water and associated flora and fauna that has been designated by law, administrative action, or voter initiative to protect or conserve marine life and habitat" (Fish and Game Code 2852, section c).

Furthermore, the law also defines a "Marine life reserve," as "a marine protected area in which all extractive activities, including the taking of marine species, and, at the discretion of the commission and within the authority of the commission, other activities that upset the natural ecological functions of the area, are prohibited. While, to the extent feasible, the area shall be open to the public for managed enjoyment and study, the area shall be maintained to the extent practicable in an undisturbed and unpolluted state" (Fish and Game Code 2852, section d).

Schwarzenegger eviscerates the MLPA

Unfortunately, the Schwarzenegger administration has taken all other "human uses" and "extractive activities" other than fishing and seaweed harvesting off the table in the implementation of the MLPA process. The MLPA fiasco does nothing to stop water pollution, oil drilling, and wave energy projects or other activities from destroying fish and other marine life populations in California's coastal waters.

A group of fisherman and conservationists exposed the Governor for doing nothing to stop pollution and other activities other than fishing in a protest they held at the Global Climate Summit in Los Angeles on September 30, 2009.

"Ironically, Governor Schwarzenegger is trying to build his legacy as a green governor while he simultaneously ignores all the ocean pollution plaguing California's beaches and coastal waters," said protest organizer Wendy Tochihara. "As anyone in Southern California who enjoys the ocean knows, poor water-quality and resulting beach closures are all too common, especially during the rainy season."

She emphasized, "The Marine Life Protection Act currently being implemented in Southern California by the administration was supposed to be comprehensive, addressing all aspects that affect the ocean, like pollution, coastal development and fishing. However, the Governor has abandoned sound science and is instead only duplicating existing fishing ban laws."

Environmental groups have also criticized the evisceration of the MLPA under Schwarzenegger. Robert Ovetz, then the executive director of the conservation group Seaflow, in http://www.counterpunch.org in April 2008, pointed out that Schwarzenegger's so-called "marine protected areas" would not protect the ocean from the "Next Cosco Busan" spill.

Although Ovetz said that "Vessel No Traffic" areas designated by the MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Force were a good "first step," he noted they were "far too small to adequately protect the Farallon Islands, Fitzgerald and Pt. Reyes from the approximately 3,600 large cargo vessels and oil supertankers entering San Francisco Bay every year virtually unregulated by the US Coast Guard."

"There is more than just fish in the sea," said Ovetz. "It would be hard to know it from observing the progress of the Marine Life Protection Act in Northern California. Otherwise known as the MLPA, it is a multi-year process to redesign California's nearly 100 state Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) into networks of protected marine habitats. But those working to implement the MLPA along the North Central coast are so narrowly focused on fish they are missing the proverbial forest for the trees."

John Stephens-Lewallen: MLPA paves the way for new offshore drilling

John Stephens-Lewallen, a well-respected North Coast environmental leader and co-founder of the Ocean Protection Coalition, has been a staunch opponent of offshore oil drilling for decades. He said that the MLPAI not only fails to protect the California Coast from offshore oil drilling, but "paves the way for new offshore oil rigs."

"The MLPAI divides coastal communities so we're fighting against each over fisheries closures whereas we should working together to phase out offshore drilling and to put in place a massive conversion to sustainable energy," emphasized Stephens-Lewallen. "The people running the process, privately funded by the Resources Legacy Fund Foundation, are interested in procuring ports and eliminating food providers so they can industrialize the ocean."

"The corporate interests have allied with some preservationists in following a bogus theory of ecosystem management that says that people should be eliminated from the ocean ecosystem," noted Stephens-Lewallen. "This paves the way for offshore drilling, since many of these preservationist organizations secure their funding from the ocean industrialists through the big foundations."

Stephens-Lewallen and other opponents of the MLPAI have criticized Schwarzenegger for appointing Catherine Reheis-Boyd, the president of the Western States Petroleum Association, as the chair of the MLPA Initiative Blue Ribbon Task Force for the South Coast. She also now serves on the North Central Coast task force and served on the North Coast task force charged with implementation of the MLPA in one of the most overt examples of corporate greenwashing in California history.

“In March, Reheis-Boyd assured the Fort Bragg City Council that setting up marine reserves had nothing to do with opening offshore oil drilling up," he said. "But at same time, Reheis-Boyd and other members of the task force toured port facilities at the Albion and Noyo harbors where we suspect the oil industry could eventually install onshore facilities to be used in tandem with offshore rigs. The North Coast Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) seem designed to eliminate the fishing industry in the Point Area area, since they bracket the harbor."

Stephens-Lewallen questions whether the placement of these marine reserves has been designed to facilitate the development of offshore oil in the Point Arena Basin in Mendocino County. This is one of the areas the oil industry is most interested in exploring for oil – and is one of the greatest marine ecosystems, sustained by upwelling, on the West Coast.

Giving credence to his contention that the MLPA Initiative paves the way for new oil drilling, Catherine Reheis-Boyd recently affirmed her support for new offshore oil rigs in spite of the BP spill's devastation, in her commentary, "Gulf Oil Spill Comments," on the association's website.

"The tragic Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico has resulted in California Governor Schwarzenegger's withdrawal of his support for limited offshore oil development near Santa Barbara," said Reheis-Boyd. "WSPA has not taken a position on specific offshore projects. But we have been vocal about our views that California businesses and consumers would benefit from development of the huge reserves of petroleum off the California coast, in both state and federal waters."

Other corporate interests who preside over the MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Force include members Gregory F. Schem and William (Bill) Anderson.

Schem is president and chief executive officer of Harbor Real Estate Group, specializing in marina and waterfront real estate investments, including a marina, fuel dock, and boat yard in Marina del Rey, in addition to other California assets.

Anderson has been president and chief operating officer of Westrec Marinas since 1989. Westrec Marinas is the nation's largest owner and operator of waterfront marinas.

How can anybody possibly claim that the MLPAI "protects" the oceans when the Governor has appointed oil company, real estate and marina development interests – all of whom all have a direct stake in how marine reserves are implemented and designated – to decision making positions on MLPA panels?

Besides failing to protect California coastal waters from other human uses than fishing in waters that already feature the largest marine protected area in the United States (the Rockcod Conservation Area), the MLPA Initiative has openly violated numerous state, federal and international laws. These include the California Public Records Act, Bagley-Keene Open Meetings Act, First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, American Indian Religious Freedom Act, and UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

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